Who Owns Your Genes?

Doctor He Jiankui was sentenced to a three year prison term, fined $430,000, and fired from his academic position as Associate Professor at the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, China. Did he engage in groping a patient? No. Poisoning a client? Again, no. According to the official Chinese Xinhua News Agency, Dr. He and two others, Zhang Renli and Qin Jinzhou, were convicted of gene editing fetuses.

His clients were a healthy mother and a father who was HIV positive. Dr. He engineered the genes of their twin girl babies so they would be resistant to HIV..

At the outset, this appears to be an agreement between consenting adults to engage in a capitalist act. The couple knew of the risks involved in this new medical technology. According to the defense, He did not hide these from the mother and father. They agreed to the procedure since they weighed the dangers of AIDS for their daughters more heavily than the perils of the new, unproven, technique.

Why, then, were He and his two colleagues arrested and convicted? It is all too easy to surmise that this was done because it occurred in China, withits reputation as a lawless country. The fact of the matter is that if He had performed this CRISPR-Cas9 gene-editing operation in the United States, a similar fate would have befallen him. This is because the Food and Drug Administration has not yet approved of this technique for human beings in terms of reproduction.

What are we to make of all of this? Let us adopt a set of private property rights economic freedom spectacles through which we can best perceive all such controversial acts. We start by asking, who were the owners of the property in question? This, presumably, would be the parents. Did they receive informed consent from the supplier of the service? Not according to the local Shenzhen court. Let us, however, abstract from this finding. Instead, we adopt a Platonic perspective. This is because although we are indeed interested in this one case, we also want to derive a principle to deal with all such violations of the law. So let us assume that there was no fraud involved here.

Should He and his colleagues have then been found guilty? Well, they did break an extant law. This leads to another question: is it a proper law that prohibits voluntary trades of this or any sort? The answer emanating from the free enterprise philosophy is a clear “No.” Rather, this would be a victimless crime, and all those even properly found guilty of violating it, should be set free.

Was there a victim here? Yes, possibly. If the dangers of this procedure were indeed of greater moment than these two children suffering from AIDS, then, yes, they might be considered victims. After all, one day that now manageable disease might be fully cured. But this is clearly a judgement call upon which reasonable people can disagree. The parents would certainly not be guilty of child abuse even were this contrary to fact conditional to come into being. They were doing what they thought best for their children.

What of the doctors involved? It is difficult to see them in any other way than as heroes. They put their careers and their freedom on the line, in order to help this mother and father be good guardians. Yes, Dr. He jumped the legal gun, whether that of the FDA in the United States, or its Chinese counterpart. But the monopoly powers of these government bodies are incompatible with the free enterprise ethic through which we are viewing their behavior. These organizations, too, can err. But when they do (thalidomide, anyone?) they carry on merrily into the sunset. They cannot be bankrupted through erroneous decisions. That is no way to run a railroad.



Walter E. Block is the Harold E. Wirth Eminent Scholar Endowed Chair and Professor of Economics at Loyola University New Orleans.